Raw Roots

Excavations for plantation artifacts - and the real truth - are unraveling the genteel gloss covering Texans' old notions about the slave era here

It was once one of three large separate Jackson holdings covering thousands of acres, ruled over from a 12-room mansion on the edge of a beautiful oxbow lake. Jackson's enslaved workers used remarkable artistry in making and laying the bricks for the columned mansion, which were then covered to resemble stone. He even had his slaves build a gazebo-topped island on the lake. According to legend, he lies buried there, though the island has long since been swallowed up by the lake. His sugar mill, too, was a remarkable example of design and construction, according to Joan Few, an archaeologist from the University of Houston at Clear Lake who supervised a dig there in 1994 and 1995.

When Jackson arrived in the lower Brazos Valley, he found the rich, gumbolike soil and steamy climate ideal for growing sugarcane. But farming and refining cane is labor-intensive, and like other growers in the region, he found it necessary to buy more and more slaves. The population of slaves exploded in Texas during the 1840s and 1850s, increasing to more than 200,000, with the concentration of enslaved people in the area of Brazoria County probably the greatest in the state. By 1860 some 72 percent of the county's population was made up of slaves.

The lower Brazos was a stronghold of wealth built by slavery, and several heroes of the Texas Revolution and of the Confederacy were slave owners who had interests in plantations in the region, including Goliad martyr Colonel Fannin and Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston.

Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.
Courtesy of Lake Jackson Historical Museum
Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.
Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.
Courtesy of Lake Jackson Historical Museum
Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.

For Abner Jackson, money seemed to be pouring in. But in fact, old court records show Jackson and his sons were always on the edge of ruin, probably because of over-reaching. "Abner was a wheeler-dealer," says Valette Randall, a descendant of his through his only daughter, Asenath. In fact, local archaeologist Johnny Pollan says his records research shows Jackson to be a bit of a con man who used the same land as collateral on several different loans. Even his title of major was a sham. It was an honor he bestowed on himself, says Pat Johnson, another descendant.

"I think it must have been a very unhappy family," says Randall, 53. Jackson's offspring brought him grief, especially Asenath, who appeared to be a troublesome "Scarlett with an attitude," Randall says. Two of Jackson's four sons died during the Civil War, and Abner Jackson died in 1861. His son John, who returned from the war to run the plantation, was always getting into trouble with the law for whipping slaves and beating up on his neighbors. "I think he must have had a mean streak," says Randall. There is evidence that he even killed a slave. But John also took a slave mistress, Rosa, who was half Indian, and who bore him a son named Frank.

When John's brother George returned at the end of the war to claim his portion of the estate, John flailed him in public with a horsewhip. George went to court and got ownership of the Lake Jackson Plantation. However, when he tried to reclaim his property, John threatened to beat him again. Before John could repeat the punishment, as the story goes, George shot his brother dead. George, already weakened by illness, was not prosecuted, but he died of tuberculosis soon after, in 1871. John's financial shenanigans had left the estate riddled with debt, leaving but a pittance to the offspring of Asenath, who had already moved away and also died young, leaving daughters but no sons.

The estate was parceled out and sold, and Lake Jackson later gained the dubious status of being the first farm in the state to be worked by prison labor. The prison system, along with sharecropping, kept the plantation system nearly intact for decades. Many of the plantations in the area later became prison farms, including Retrieve, one of Jackson's holdings.

In some ways, according to archaeologist Few, the convicts (most of them black) who worked the Jackson place were treated even worse than slaves, since they could be easily replaced by leasing others from the state prison in Huntsville. They were not nearly as effective as the skilled slaves, and the cane business was already on the decline by the time of the 1900 storm. By the mid-1920s the plantation had deteriorated badly. Abner Strobel, the stepgrandson of the original owner, authored a 1926 history of area plantations that eulogized the old place in purple prose that anticipated Margaret Mitchell by a decade:

Desolation reigns supreme and the sighing winds sing a requiem through limbs of trees that now grow amidst its ruins.

The final demolition came in the 1940s, when Dow Chemical Company took over the land as part of a planned town, dubbed Lake Jackson, to house workers for a new plant. The ruins of the old sugar mill became the romantic centerpiece of the town park, which was eventually closed by Dow in 1989.

From 1994 to 1995 the Lake Jackson Historical Society sponsored the dig led by Few that retrieved more than 200,000 artifacts. The Lake Jackson Historical Museum, which opened in 1999, showed some of them in an embarrassingly romanticized display titled "Gone with the Whispering Wind," complete with that quiveringly nostalgic quote from Strobel. Some observers thought "Gone with the Howling Wind" might have been more accurate. And anyone who had bothered to read Strobel's memoir would have noticed that he was an unabashed racist who dedicated his book to the Confederate Army, which "stood like a stone wall for white supremacy."

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